Haitians are fleeing the Dominican Republic due to coronavirus. Many arrive home unscreened

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Jacqueline Charles/Miami Herald/TNS

A daily exodus of Haitians fleeing the rapid increase of coronavirus cases in the neighboring Dominican Republic — many evading military patrols and medical screenings as they sneak back into Haiti through the closed land border — is raising concerns about Haiti’s ability to halt the spread of the deadly virus.

“Even in normal situations, managing the flows at the borders is incredibly difficult,” said Giuseppe Loprete, the country director for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. The agency has adapted its tracking of migrant flows along the 224 miles dividing Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola to support the ongoing preparedness and response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“The best that we can do now is buy some time for the health authorities to put some proper screenings at the border to identify positive cases or people with symptoms although we know COVID-19 is spreading also to people with no symptoms,” he said. “We can really prevent the spread of the virus across the country if we do something now. Three to four weeks from now the virus will already be spreading.”

More than 11,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic have returned home since March 29, according to IOM’s monitoring, which tracked movement across the four official border checkpoints and 46 unofficial crossings.

While about 2,500 passed through official checkpoints where Haiti’s health ministry has installed hand-washing stations and placed temperature takers to screen returnees for flulike symptoms, thousands of others arrived back undetected and unchecked for a fever or other symptoms. They returned via rivers and mountains bordering the porous frontier that is believed to have at least 100 crossings.

That daunting reality is made worse by the fact that many Haitians are ignoring social-distancing standards and attending funerals, nightclubs and pre-Easter Vodou celebrations, despite a government order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people.

Of 4,016 confirmed COVID-19 cases registered across 33 Caribbean countries and territories by the Caribbean Public Health Agency, as of Wednesday, the Dominican Republic accounted for more than 52% with 2,111 cases. By Thursday, it was up to 2,349 infections and 118 deaths.

Haiti, in comparison, has reported 30 laboratory confirmed cases of the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and announced its second death Thursday, a 69-year-old woman with underlining health issues who died in its northwest region.

Many Haitians believe the actual number in Haiti is higher. Unlike the Dominican Republic, which has conducted more than 4,000 tests, Haiti is not aggressively testing. The country’s weak health system has struggled to prepare structures outside of Port-au-Prince to cope with the pandemic, and has faced challenges doing contact tracing of confirmed cases in the face of deep stigmatization over the virus.

In addition, crowds continue to gather in beauty salons, public markets, nightclubs and on the streets for cultural celebrations such as Rara, the festive street procession common during Easter week.

Meanwhile, along the border with the Dominican Republic, panic ensues with each passing band of strangers riding on the back of motorcycles, in the flat beds of trucks and on foot.

“It’s really grave,” said Jean Balaguel Bertho, the mayor of Cornillon/Grand Bois, a border town in the mountains above Haiti’s capital not far from the city of Malpasse, where one of the four official border checkpoints is located. “Everyone who wants to enter Haiti is passing through Cornillon; not the people of Cornillon but everyone from across the country who wants to leave the Dominican Republican. And this is where the danger lies.”

Bertho said his town of 69,000 residents has one public health center that’s “in a deplorable state,” and another run by a U.S. nonprofit that is struggling. There are just six police officers who are in charge of not only providing security but patrolling a 10 mile-border.

“They don’t even have a way to get around. Their vehicle hasn’t been working for several months,” he said of the officers. “They have to hire motorcycles drivers just for them to come to work in Cornillon.”

The Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés — the Support Group for Returnees and Refugees — said that over the course of four days last week monitors counted 200 migrants crossing through Cornillon where there are no ministry of health temperature screeners or hand-washing stations.

“These are just the ones the monitors saw with their eyes; it could be more,” said Géralda Sainville Lubin, the spokeswoman for the Haitian nonprofit, which monitors border crossings and supports repatriated families from the Dominican Republic. “They are crossing at all hours, even at night.”

At one of the more active crossings in Belladère in Haiti’s Central Plateau region, roughly 1,200 migrants have crossed between March 31 and April 5, she said.

“We are really worried by this spontaneous returns, which are happening every day,” Lubin said. “In these communities along the frontier, the health structures are really deficient; there are those that don’t even have a health center. If you have a positive case, they wouldn’t know what to do.”

Lubin said her organization wants Haitian authorities to reinforce surveillance at the border, especially the nonofficial entries, so that border communities can feel more at ease.

“The communications over the measures being taken also need to be clearer, so that people are aware of the dangers … and the restrictions have to be adopted based on the reality of the population,” she said. “The central government also needs to work with the local authorities on the frontier to help them reinforce vigilance.

“The people do not believe in what the government is saying and they don’t believe in the reality of this disease, so this has made them reticent to apply the measures,” Lubin added. “Imagine if it’s like this in Port-au-Prince what the reality is in the provinces where people don’t even have water. They not only need to impose measures but they also have to provide support too, to allow the restrictions to succeed.”

The migrants crossing the border fall into several categories. There are those being sent back by the Dominican Republic after being denied entry, and whom Lubin said are being driven close to the border by Dominican authorities and then deported without official notification to Haiti despite the border’s closure.

There are the tree cutters and other day laborers who live in Haiti but eke out their daily living in the Dominican Republic, crossing during the day and returning in the evening. Bertho, the mayor of Cornillon, said over 80% of the farmers living in his border communities are growing their crops on Dominican soil and regularly cross to tend to them.

And then there are the voluntary returnees, those who can no longer find construction or service jobs due to the Dominican Republic’s tightened measures and stalled economy. Dominican President Danilo Medina shut down the country last month, and two days ago Congress extended a state of emergency for another 15 days. This includes a heavily enforced 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Police, deployed across the country, have made over 22,000 arrests.

A 33-year-old recent Haitian returnee, who asked that her name not be used because she hopes to return after the pandemic, told the Miami Herald she left the Dominican Republic not only because of the shutdown, “but I started to worry that if I were to get sick, how would they treat me given Dominicans’ treatment of Haitians?”

The woman said she left by private car from Santo Domingo for the western province of Elías Pinas. Once there, she paid a guide to help her cross into Belladère through the bushes, undetected.

“When I was coming from Santo Domingo, I passed a lot of Haitians on foot going to the frontier,” she said.

Loprete, the IOM director, said others are showing up at the official checkpoints.

“They decide to come back and when they reach the official border point, they enter when they can,” he said. “Every day around 2 or 3 p.m. the gates are opened to let the traffic come in with all of the goods and that’s when people, who are gathered on the other side of the border in the DR, enter as well.”

Even here, IOM has concerns. Questioning of crossing migrants has revealed that the majority are from two Dominican COVID-19 hot spots — the cities of Santiago and the capital of Santo Domingo — while others hail from farming communities. After arriving in Haiti, they fan out to areas where there are no quarantine facilities or even hospitals that can care for them should they end up positive for the coronavirus or become sickened by COVID-19.

“A visible impact of the COVID-19 is that thousands of migrants are losing their livelihoods in the DR. They can no longer afford to stay there, so they are coming here,” Loprete said.

Loprete doesn’t believe the fight to stop the virus’ spread in Haiti has to be a battle lost. Last week, his team visited the Ouanaminthe-Dajabón border in northern Haiti, where returning migrants have resorted to crossing in the river below the Massacre River Bridge. Speaking with Haitian health officials, IOM has stressed the need for a comprehensive strategy to deal with the crossings, including arming the health workers with the ability to track migrants after they leave, to do rapid testing and have facilities where migrants can be quarantined and treated if need be.

“We can really prevent the spread of the virus across the country if we do something now,” he said. “We think the border is something that we can do, at least quickly, and it’s crucial that we identify people, track their movements, communicate with them more clearly because a lot of people in these communities are not aware of the risks.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, elected officials in the border towns say.

Bertho, the Cornillon mayor, said that weeks after raising his concerns to the central government nothing has happened. High on his list of needs: medical personnel for the health clinic and a unit at the border entries to screen the people crossing.

“We also need the Haiti National Police to reinforce the police officers in the area. This would help us do at least some prevention,” Bertho said. “They don’t have a vehicle to go out in. They don’t even have masks. They are very exposed. Even us as local officials. We don’t have the means to do anything.”

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